Growing up in Toronto, (largely regarded as the most multi-cultural city in the world), I was exposed to just about every culture under the sun. In a city where about 33% of the population consider themselves anything other than Christian (Jews, Jedis and atheists included), the city has made every effort to make cultures outside of the majority feel all the more welcome in the city. (Cue the “holiday tree” controversy that seems to spring up every year).
Flash forward to my new reality: like many olim chadashim, the culture shock of suddenly being a part of the majority is a strange and wonderful feeling. Don’t get me wrong; the fact that this country runs on the Jewish calendar might be my favorite thing about living here. Nothing makes me smile more than seeing Chag Sameach signs sprawled around the mall during the holiday season- but my minority mentality can’t help but feel for the more than quarter of the population that consider themselves anything other than Jewish.
This past week marked the end of Ramadan, and honestly, had it have not been for a lone invitation, at least for me, the holiday would have gone unnoticed.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending a community event to celebrate Iftar, a festive meal to break the daily fast of Ramadan. The event, organized by The Citizens’ Accord Forum, The Arab Jewish Community Center, and the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, was the first time that I personally had seen a large-scale community event in Israel celebrating anything other than Jewish traditions.
The usually plain looking auditorium of the Arab Jewish Community Center was turned into a makeshift reception hall as over 550 Jews, Muslims and Christians piled in for a festive meal. The crowd was made up of all walks of life: young and old, religious and secular, Anglos, Arabs and everyone in between were all welcomed at this event.
The mismatch of people and views made me feel at home. As a minority growing up in a sea of other minorities, I always embraced the cultural differences between my friends and I. From the comfort of my suburban Toronto home, I never thought it was odd to be exposed to a smorgasbord of faith, tradition and cultures outside my own. However, I wish that youth in my adopted home could be exposed to the same brand of cultural diversity that I feel lucky to have had.
In between indulging on the delicious spread at the table, I had a chance to speak to the young girl sitting next to me. Tamar, a 15-year-old from Tel Aviv is a member of The Citizens’ Accord Forum’s Youth Parliament. For Tamar, the Iftar dinner was the first time she’d really been exposed to any tradition outside of her own religion. While active in an Arab/Jewish community project, at 15 and living in arguably the most diverse city in Israel, Tamar is just starting to be exposed to her neighbors.
In her own words, Tamar explained the value of going to events such as this:
“The Arab students that are involved in the Youth Parliament with me live just a short distance from us, and I enjoy learning about how their culture and traditions vary from my own. More often than not, I find that that there are more similarities than differences”.
While skewers of meat were passed from table to table, a myriad of prominent community leaders took to the podium for a round of touching speeches. From political leaders like Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai, to Rabbis, Arch Bishops, and Imams alike, all blessed the room with wishes for peace and holiday blessings. Even thought the event was religious in nature, everyone in the crowd, regardless of faith or denomination could no doubt relate to the hopeful messages shared.
During his speech, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a long-time advocate for social justice, spoke on the value of building bridges. Rabbi Melchior made the point of blessing peace upon not only the citizens of Israel, but also wished that peace and religious freedom be bestowed upon our neighboring countries as well. He stated that the first step towards building bridges with our neighbors near or far is to focus on the similarities that unite, not divide us as people, and I couldn’t agree more.
With the topic of the peace process heavy in today’s cultural narrative, I believe that it’s time we take the first step and embrace the different cultures in our backyards in order to prepare our cities for what I think is an ideal shared society.
Proud as we may be as the defenders of Jewish culture, I don’t think that we should be ignoring the segment of our populations that do not come from a Jewish home. In commemorating the traditions of minorities in the country, we’re not diluting our own Jewish culture, but rather embracing the enlightened society that many of us strive so desperately to reach.
* For more information on the Citizens’ Accord Forum, visit www.caf.org.il